Monday, 5 November 2012

Crowdsourcing a Constitution

Alana Maurushat with David Lee

When I worked at the University of Hong Kong, I had the privilege of engaging in many conversations with the world-renowned constitution-writer and scholar Professor Yash Gai. Professor Gai led constitutional reviews in Kenya and Fiji, and was asked to assist with Constitutions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over many casual lunches with colleagues in Hong Kong, I can still recall how passionate Professor Gai was for constitutional writing that was “right” for the people of the country in question. He was a staunch believer of the idea that extensive discussion and consultation among all communities of a nation was essential for building a strong constitution that would stand the test of time: constitution writing by consensus. These constitutional reviews often involved Professor Gai and his committees to lead meetings throughout urban and remote areas of a nation. These consultations often lasted years, in order to ensure that small ethnic minorities were not neglected. The process was epic.

Given that a constitution is construed as one of the pillars of a nation’s identity, one might ask the question – why not ask the citizens to draft the constitution? With the rise in online user input platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, collaborative innovation has never been easier. It should come as no surprise that Facebook alone is used by nearly 12 million people just in Australia.

This increasing popularity of social media is exactly what the Nordic European nation of Iceland needed. Following collapse of its economy and outcry from its citizens, the Icelandic government has decided to take advantage of this method. The government introduced a process in 2011 involving a unique democratic approach of using social media such as Facebook and Twitter to identify ideas, recommendations, and provisions to be included in the new constitution. The social feedback will not be binding to the Parliament of Iceland, but it will most likely have significant influence on politicians.  Because the proposals are drafted by the public, it will be impossible for politicians to "sweep popular proposals under the carpet". Icelandic citizens are welcoming this idea too – 66% of the voters agreed in a referendum to use the resulting document as a framework for the nation’s new constitution. This unique drafting method adopted by Iceland is a prime example of "crowdsourcing".

First coined by Jeff Howe in an article posted on The Wired, the term "crowdsourcing" refers to a similar concept to outsourcing. Outsourcing involves an identified and selected individual or group of individuals developing a concept or performing work duties. Crowdsourcing is a much bigger idea – it brings in the public and involves the crowd in a creative, collaborative process. Many businesses have taken advantage of this method from as early as 2001. iStockPhoto was created as a marketplace for bloggers and web-designers to purchase stock images from a gallery of photos contributed by amateur photographers. The collaborative input provided by thousands of contributors allowed these images to be sold at very low prices, often undercutting professional photographers by as much as 99%. Other notable businesses benefiting from crowdsourcing include Reddit, Youtube and Innocentive.

Crowdsourcing through social media creates exciting opportunities, as it empowers people to participate in a true democratic process. Evidently, this method has been utilised mainly by businesses for financial gains. As such, Iceland must be commended for taking the unprecedented approach of employing crowdsourcing in politics, in an effort to produce a constitution that is “right” for its citizens. Other nations will undoubtedly take note; it won’t be long before other governments follow the unique path created by Iceland. It is arguable that the constitutions of other nations are long over-due for a reformulation, with netizen contribution.

For example, the Australian Constitution was drafted by the delegates of the States in the late 19th Century, and the only input provided by the people was voting for its adoption. However, this is a debate for another time.

    Image by James Cridland, made available by creative commons license via Flickr.

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